Making a West Greenland Paddle

by Chuck Holst

The Greenland paddle
The Greenland paddle has become increasingly popular among sea kayakers in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Apart from its romantic association with the people who taught Europeans to kayak and to roll, the narrow-bladed Greenland paddle is popular because it is easy to brace and roll with and is not very susceptible to strong winds. Also, because it slips a little at the beginning of a stroke, it is easier on the muscles, and thus less fatiguing on day-long trips than wide-bladed “Euro”-style paddles. A further benefit for northern kayakers is that the Greenland paddle is adapted for paddling in freezing conditions. The shoulders where the blades and loom meet

Inuit paddles across the Davis Strait, the loom is not carved in any way that would interfere with the sliding stroke. Traditional Greenland paddles have bone tips, and usually bone edges, to protect them from sea ice, but outside Greenland and even in Greenland itself, most modern replicas are made entirely of wood. A Greenland paddle is narrow so the hand can grasp the blade near the end without having to grasp the tip, which on a traditional paddle is connected to the blade by a mortise and tenon joint. So the extreme width of a Greenland blade should be no wider than the paddler can grasp between the web of the thumb and the second joint of the forefinger. A paddle that has a blade too wide to grasp is not a Greenland paddle, because it cannot be used like one.

Fig. 1. East Greenland paddle.

Fig. 2. West Greenland paddle.

Fig. 3. Storm paddle. make an ice-coated loom easier to grip, while the narrow ends of the blades, which are immersed in water while paddling, offer an ice-free grip for emergency braces and rolls. The Greenland paddle is also popular because it is very easy and inexpensive to make with simple tools in a home workshop, which is the subject of this article. Working entirely with hand tools, it is possible to make a Greenland paddle with less than $10 worth of materials and 24 hours of labor. What is a Greenland paddle? A Greenland paddle is a paddle in the style of those traditionally used by the Inuit of Greenland. It is characterized by long, narrow, tapering blades and a relatively short loom, or shaft, that is typically one-quarter and no more than one-third the length of the paddle. Unlike

Greenland paddle styles In Greenland there are two basic paddle styles and many variations in between. On the east coast of Greenland, in the Angmagssalik (or Ammassilik) district, the wood part of the paddle flares gradually from the loom to the end of the blade (Fig. 1). The edges of the blades are made from whale ribs, the ends of which create shoulders that mark the ends of the blades. The tips of the blades are carved from the jawbones of whales. Typically, they are made a little wider than the rest of the blade, possibly to keep the hand from sliding off the end when the paddle is used in the extended position. However, when used with the normal forward stroke, this style tip is noisier than the West Greenland style tip. This is the paddle style used by members of the British Arctic Air Route Expeditions of 1930–33, led by Gino Watkins, who was taught to kayak by

the paddler begins a stroke with one hand near the middle of the loom and the other on the upper blade about a shoulder width away. Humberside. the Greenland paddle may have evolved after the Thule Inuit reached Greenland. Greenlanders typically slide both hands out onto one blade for leverage when bracing. and the bottom hand then slides out about six inches onto the other blade to become the top hand. and the bone tips are more likely to be the same width as the rest of the blade (Fig. which is used mostly with the storm paddle.” -2- . the paddle slides back and forth through the hands as the kayaker strokes first on one side. especially during the twentieth century. History of the Greenland paddle No one knows how old the Greenland paddle is. moved east from Alaska and northern Canada only about a thousand years ago. The oldest known surviving Greenland kayak. have relatively wide blades. has been on display at Trinity House in Hull.Making a West Greenland Paddle Manasse Mathaeussen. In the film Palos Brudefaerd (Palo’s Wedding). However. F. The ancestors of today’s Greenlanders. there are many intermediate styles as well. My own guess is that the Greenland paddle and the sliding stroke evolved together. but it is unlikely to be the thousands of years that are sometimes claimed.” Extending the paddle by moving it between the hands like this allows more control and makes bracing quicker and easier. Since a different style of paddle with a longer loom and much shorter. paddles typically have a shoulder carved into the wood where the blade meets the loom. unlike either European oars or Greenland paddles. 2). says: “When you are paddling a kayak you keep on passing the paddle to and fro in your hands so that as much of the blade as possible is under water at each stroke. because its primary use is in high winds. leaf-shaped blades was used until recently by many Inuit west of Greenland. about the same time that Eric the Red was settling southwest Greenland. or open boats. During the recovery phase. You might call it the Greenland version of the marathon canoe racer’s sit n’ switch style. A third type of paddle is called the storm paddle. and the bottom hand then slides out onto the other blade to become the top hand for the next stroke. many Greenlanders incorporate a sliding stroke into their forward stroke. the oars used with Greenland umiaks. and in fact. bone edges are usually shorter and faired into the blade. filmed by Knud Rasmussen in Angmagssalik in 1932. except that the hands never leave the paddle. I carry mine as a spare on my foredeck. In the full sliding stroke. which buries the blade deep in the water while exposing little of the upper end to the winds. On the west coast of Greenland. Since the kayaker is used to sliding the paddle. the paddle that accompanies it is of the older leaf-bladed style. but spent most of his kayaking career on the west coast. who at his death in 1989 was the most skilled kayaker in Greenland. During the recovery phase. England since the early 17th century. The total length is about the height of the paddler. collected in 1613. then the other. where it is easy to grab and roll up with should I lose my standard Greenland paddle in a capsize. who took the lines of the kayak and documented it in his Little Kayak Book. all the kayakers can be seen using this stroke. the top hand slides down the blade to meet the bottom hand. however. In Watkin’s Last Expedition. who learned to kayak in Angmagssalik a year or two before Palos Brudefaerd was filmed. it is easy to turn a short extension of the paddle into a long one when conditions warrant. Also. This stroke was formerly practiced in the Angmagssalik district of Greenland. while the blades are of normal length. since there was a great deal of movement between the east and west coasts. It is because of the sliding stroke that I sometimes call the Greenland paddle the “variable-length paddle. John Brand. There is one ambiguous clue that the Greenland paddle may be only a few hundred years old. However. The unadorned shape and dimensions of the paddle make it easy to slide the paddle back and forth in the hands. and I question whether the European example would influence one and not the other. known as the Thule culture. The sliding stroke In the sliding stroke. This paddle is used only with a full sliding stroke. many prefer it for rolling. and making sweep turns. and perhaps in other districts as well. the paddler begins a stroke with the bottom hand grasping the loom and the root of the bottom blade and the top hand grasping the top blade about six inches from the loom. Spencer Chapman. Manasse Mathaeussen himself learned to kayak on the east coast. speculates that the development of the Greenland paddle may have been influenced by the shape of European oars. except that the loom is only about as long as two fists. In what I call the short sliding stroke. Because the storm paddle is easier than the standard paddle to move underwater. the top hand slides down the blade to the loom. rolling. The storm paddle resembles a standard Greenland paddle.

try to follow the same principle. Materials The Greenland Inuit made paddles from anything that washed up on shore. sandpaper. if you are reasonably neat about it. Choose a two-by-four that is at least 1-1/2 inches by 3-1/2 inches in section and 7 to 8 feet in length. and sandpaper. 7 will take you. Look at the sections at the bottom of Fig. Whatever you use.” in the Winter 1987 issue of Sea Kayaker and on my own paddle-making experience. 7 to see how the shape changes between the loom and the tip of the blade. and so forth. Expect to spend about eight dollars at your local lumber yard for an 8-foot standard-grade cedar two-by-four. you are likely to gouge the wood. This article describes how to carve a West Greenland kayak paddle from a two-by-four. keep in mind that the column on the right shows approximately what the paddle would look like if you cut it through the center after each step. Note that the grain of the wood meets the surface that is -3- . to cut out the blank. many ready-made paddles have looms that are too long or blades that are too wide for the average paddler. this would be Aor B-grade. while the bottom row shows sections of the completed paddle. Knotholes should be small and few. a drawknife. The guidelines in step 4 of Fig. not all lumber yards carry finishgrade lumber. spruce. it is far less expensive and much more satisfying to make your own. For fine finishing. The grain should be fine. I usually cut out the blank with a handsaw. In cedar. Further shaping can be done with any combination of the following tools: a knife. straight. Surform-type perforated metal tools. However. Go with the grain When carving wood. It should be seasoned and straight. if not absent entirely. This is as far as the guidelines in Fig. always cut with the grain. however. Since I don’t have a band saw. such as a two-by-four. As you refer to the step-by-step illustrations in Fig. Required Tools The following instructions assume that you have at least a hand saw. One reason to make your own is that the cost of materials for a Greenland paddle is only about $10 to $20. and more or less parallel to the sides of the plank. has four corners and sides. you will cut out a blank that.Making a West Greenland Paddle Making a West Greenland paddle Though it is now easier to buy a ready-made Greenland paddle than it used to be. is done by making successive approximations of the final shape. It might help when shaping the paddle to imagine that there is a shape inside that you are trying to free. 5. a shape with eight corners and sides. A note on shaping the paddle Carving a curved surface from a rectangular piece of wood. I prefer cedar for its light weight. a plane. A third reason is that many paddles sold as Greenland paddles are not as authentic as one you can make yourself. 7. I use a spoke shave. John Heath recommends pine. I do most of the rough shaping with a drawknife and a spoke shave. Sometimes you can find a long enough clear section in a 12-foot twoby-four when you can’t find a clear 8-foot one. then smooth the cuts with a plane before marking the blank and removing more wood. Fig. You will then draw additional guidelines on the blank and cut away the corners between them to create. otherwise. for the form underlying the facets is rarely symmetrical. then the 16 corners to make 32. or ash. fir. compared to $120 to $220 for a ready-made version. in section. so you might have to sort through stacks of standard construction-grade lumber to find something usable. Using guidelines drawn on the wood. Approximating the shape within. After that. It is based on John Heath’s article. and use touch and sight to create an organic shape that flows together and looks and feels right to you. in section. make sure it is sharp. To see what is meant by cutting with the grain. Another reason is that you can custom-fit the paddle to your dimensions. and preferably a band saw. look at Fig. 4. Don’t be mechanistic about it. George Gronseth recommends cedar because it is easy to work and has soft splinters. 7 are designed to create facets on the blank that touch the curved surface of the hidden shape in approximately the center of each facet (see Fig. Ask for clear finish-grade wood. you are on your own as you cut away the eight corners to make 16. 4). or twice as much for a clear A-grade cedar two-by-four. and 0000 grade steel wool. a spoke shave. “The Do-It-Yourselfer’s Greenland Paddle. Most lumber yards will let you do this. though it does mar more easily than some other woods. As you create additional facets.

Few authentic blades exceeded 3 inches and many were less. Fig. though 1 inch by 1-1/2 inches seems most common among the documented traditional paddles. however. Make a wide C with your index finger and thumb. err on the short side. 7. the maximum width of the blades should be no more than you can grasp comfortably between the second joint of the index finger and the web of the thumb. which is about 1-1/2 inches. -4- . though paddles in Baffin Island could reach 110 inches. Draw reference lines at right angles to each other down the center of each face. Normally. One set of reference lines will be midway between the ends. Note. Draw straight lines from these tick marks to Fig. Draw lines across the two-by-four to mark the ends of the loom (S). so your measurement using the second method should be from center finger to center finger. the thumbs and index fingers grasp the ends of the loom while the last three fingers grasp the roots of the blades. Procedure. If in doubt. Length of the loom (S). measure an arm span and a cubit (which is the distance from the elbow to the fingertips).7. Traditional proportions should work fine for similar-sized modern kayaks. it may still tear the wood rather than cut it. If you cut against the grain. both methods yield about 18 inches. Begin by trimming your two-by-four to the overall length (L). your blade will try to follow the grain into the wood. please refer to step 1 in Fig. the surface of the wood and the wood grain make a series of wedges that point in the direction you should cut (heavy lines in Fig. Make the long axis of the oval equal to the thickness of the two-by-four. or shaft. As you read the following descriptions. Heath suggests making it 1-1/8 inches to 1-1/4 inches. 6. which has nothing to do with his seated height. Step 1 The first step in making a Greenland paddle is to calculate the paddle’s dimensions. Overall length (L). Viewed from the side.Making a West Greenland Paddle being shaped at an acute angle. if experience shows that the loom is too short. Width of the blades (W). Cutting against the grain. The overall length of the paddle should equal an arm span and the distance from the elbow to the wrist. To use the paddle in the extended position. In section. For a slightly longer paddle. Then. If in doubt. Even if the blade cannot go far into the wood because it is held in a plane or a spoke shave. since you can always reduce it later. 5). 5. but if you have a wide kayak (over 22 inches) or an unusually high foredeck or seat. For me. The blades taper to half the maximum width at the blade roots. Thickness of the loom (T). Step 2 Refer to step 2 in Fig. the loom is a rounded rectangle or oval with the long axis perpendicular to the plane of the blades. T is the other axis of the oval (the short axis). For me that is about 3-3/8 inches. it can be lengthened by whittling away part of the blade roots—or you can use the sliding stroke. use the larger figure. which are based on your own dimensions. both methods yield 85 inches overall for the longer paddle. you might need to lengthen the paddle slightly. For me. or as high as the paddler can reach with the fingers hooked over the end of the paddle. Establish the 1/2-inch thickness of the blade tips by drawing tick marks 1/4 inch from the center line at the ends of the narrow (1-1/2-inchwide) faces. 6. Cutting with the grain. should be about the width of the shoulders or the span of the grip with the paddler’s elbows against the ribs and the forearms straight out. None of the Greenland paddles I have seen documented exceed 82 inches. Note that the method of measuring a paddle by reaching up while standing is affected by the length of the paddler’s legs. that the traditional Greenland paddle is proportioned for the traditional Greenland kayak. which was preferred by some Greenlanders for cruising. The resulting loom should fit into the oval formed by touching the tip of your forefinger to the ball of your thumb. as in Fig. The length of the loom. though 20 inches seems to be fairly common among documented paddles.

Fig.) 3. ESTABLISH PADDLE DIMENSIONS. ROUND CORNERS AND SMOOTH SHAPE. 1/4 W 1/2 T W 1" .2" 3/8" 4. MARK BEVELS ON FACES AND CUT. -5- . MARK WIDE FACES AND CUT. W 1/2 W 1/2 L T Center section after step 1/2 S S 1/2" 2.Making a West Greenland Paddle MAKING A GREENLAND PADDLE 1. 7. (Width exaggerated for clarity. Steps in making a Greenland paddle.1/4" 7/8" 1/2" 5. MARK NARROW FACES AND CUT. 2/3 BLADE LENGTH 1-1/4" 13/16" 13/16" 1/2 BLADE LENGTH 3/4 BLADE LENGTH 1/8" .

and are harder to refinish when dings do occur. The front and back surfaces of the loom should be completely rounded. you should wet the paddle to raise the grain. which can be hard on bare hands. tilt the two-by-four slightly toward the blade to ensure that the cut will fall outside the guide line on the hidden bottom side. To mark the loom thickness. Also. trim the blank’s corners in successive steps by cutting away each new corner until all corners are rounded and the shape is smoothed as shown in the sections at the bottom of the drawing. -6- . Now sketch the curve at each end of the paddle. a hand tool such as a draw knife or an ordinary knife may be easier. do not offer appreciably more protection against dings. Making a storm paddle To make a storm paddle. mark the paddle blank as indicated. but shorten the overall length. using the block as a reference. if you wish a more gradual shoulder. (You can use one of the drawings on the last page as a template. On the wide faces. S. smooth the cuts with a plane. L. Lay the outlined plank on one of its wide faces. All should blend smoothly together. 7. I dislike the harder finishes because they feel like plastic. Alternate sides every few inches until the cut is finished. If you can’t take the paddle out on a lake. Tip 2: If you make the cut with a band saw. the blade should have a diamondshaped section. Step 3 Refer to step 3 in Fig. before the final sanding. The blade roots should be oval in section. Traditional paddles were smoothed with a knife or plane and left unfinished. I usually fine-sand the paddle (220 grit). turn the piece over and run it through the blade again. and rub it lightly with 0000 grade steel wool for a silky finish. Then. follow the instructions for the standard paddle. but since the bevels twist. Taking the time to mark and cut these bevels helps to make a more symmetrical paddle. add a little Japan dryer to speed the drying time. To make a storm paddle.) Also sketch in the shallow S-shapes of the blade shoulders. they are about 1 inch long. saber saw. trimming off any wood remaining between the guide line that is now on top and the opposite edge of the cut. from the end and 1/2 W from the center line. Tip 1: If you make the cut with a hand saw. bevel the edges by removing the corner material between the lines. place a squared block on the band saw table near the two-byfour. if somewhat slower. To complete the blank. In Heath’s drawing and photographs. then gradually widen the lines to 13/16 inch apart at the blade root. With no finish. the wood tends to roughen with weathering. cut a few inches on one side. You may find. but the loom is only about two fists long or less. though fine for gloves. Step 7 Applying a finish is optional. draw parallel lines on the loom faces as shown. Connect the tick marks with straight lines to mark blade taper. as I did. then turn the paddle over and cut a few inches on the other side. Tip: If you use pure tung oil. as much as you shorten the loom length. with the oval perpendicular to the oval section of the loom. Also. a blade width. but the top and bottom surfaces may be flat or slightly curved. Saw along these lines to taper the blades. Step 5 Referring to step 5 in Fig. to help stay outside the guide lines. remember that the blades are about the same length as those on a standard paddle. The blade tips should be convex.Making a West Greenland Paddle the edges of the face at the ends of the loom. draw two parallel lines 3/8 inch apart for two-thirds the blade length. Put tick marks on each wide face that are W. mark guidelines as shown. If you can do this accurately with a power saw. that is. or band saw. connect these lines by drawing two lines parallel to the center line and 1/2 T from it. take it into the shower with you (shower with a friend!). You earlier drew two lines across each wide face to mark the loom ends. When you have finished the cut.7. On the narrow faces. Smoothing the cut edges afterwards with a plane will make it easier to mark them in step 4. I have tried everything from no finish to epoxy resin and spar varnish. Midway between. One advantage of a pure oil finish is that it is possible to erase minor dents by soaking the paddle in water. if you like. Step 4 Referring to step 4. more power to you. but they can be 2 inches or more in length. Mark each loom end line with tick marks 1/4 W from the center line to establish the width of the blade roots. apply tung oil. and cut along the lines with a hand saw. As you feed the two-by-four through the saw blade. that you will want to reshape the loom slightly for comfort. Step 6 Try the paddle before you apply a finish to it.

The arms swing back and forth. The ability to shift quickly to an extended or partially extended grip is one of the advantages of the Greenland paddle. Remember: if you can’t paddle Greenland style with it it’s not a Greenland paddle. The upper arms hang loosely with the elbows close to the ribs. Greenland paddling style Many kayakers who buy or make a Greenland paddle make the mistake of trying to use it with a standard “Euro” paddling style. Slide one hand about a shoulder width out onto a blade and stroke on the opposite side. almost in your lap. and many bookstores. your power comes from.E. Winter 1987) if you would like to imitate them (I suggest using a white plastic instead of bone). -7- . not outward. Hold it low. During the recovery. with a cadence of about 60 strokes a minute. See John Heath’s article. For the basic Greenland stroke. Greenland kayakers shift effortlessly among all three strokes as conditions warrant. “The Do-It-Yourselfer’s Greenland Paddle” (Sea Kayaker. Two templates for marking the paddle tips. You can order the article from Sea Kayaker. The forearms are approximately at right angles to the upper arms.I. and circular. 8. Copy this page and cut out the template that is closest in size to the width of your paddle. You can also use the short sliding stroke in which the hands start the normal distance apart and slide only a short distance. To make a full sliding stroke. on sale at R. and remain bent throughout the stroke. hold the paddle at the roots of the blades as described above. turn your torso in the direction of the stroke—that’s where Fig. The length of the slide may vary with conditions and the need for a slight course correction or a momentary brace. begin with both hands together in the middle of the loom. Greenlanders usually put bone or ivory tips and edges on their paddles for protection from floe ice. thumbs touching. As you make a stroke. rolls. This is the only stroke you can use with the storm paddle. quick. and sweeps. The stroke should be short.Making a West Greenland Paddle Adding “bone” tips Though the all-wood paddle should be durable enough for most uses south of the Arctic Circle. Midwest Mountaineering. slide the top hand back to the center and the bottom hand out onto the blade for the next stroke. though the full sliding stroke is used mostly for power strokes and to extend the paddle for braces. For maximum enjoyment you should use a Greenland paddling style with your Greenland paddle..

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